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Cover of Autumn 2006 - Winter 2007 Issue

The First Gentleman

The First Gent is a French-speaking medieval literature scholar
who has a Ph.D. from Harvard, reads Latin almost daily, has taught at several colleges and has published more than three million words. Raymond Cormier, the husband of Longwood President Patricia Cormier for 46 years, discusses Virgil’s Aeneid as easily as most people discuss the weather.

Dr. Raymond CormierHis title is visiting professor of French, but he also calls himself First Gent. When his wife, then vice president for academic affairs at Winthrop University, was appointed to the Longwood presidency, Winthrop’s vice president for advancement said to him “Why don’t you get a license plate that says First Gent?” The tags on his BMW sport-utility vehicle read 1-GENT (he wanted 1st GENT, but DMV regulations limit personal messages to six characters). He says his role is to support the president. “I think that my activities as a scholar help add some glitter and keep Longwood’s name in the forefront,” he said during an interview in his book-cluttered study on the second floor of Longwood House, the president’s residence. “Besides that, I’m forever looking for possible ideas for fund-raising, trying to identify opportunities and potential donors. As I often say when asked to speak to other college-president spouses at meetings, it’s important to keep my president in shape: mentally, physically and spiritually. Everywhere we might go – Richmond, Washington, New York – I’m always looking for arts venues, such as concerts and the theater, that we can enjoy together. Such performances are important refreshers for her; they energize her ... I do the cooking and shopping. You know what Patty gave me for Christmas last year? A crockpot.”

In addition to his research and writing, Raymond teaches one or two courses each semester in the Department of English and Modern Languages, including basic French, Survey of French Literature, French senior seminars, and World Literature. “This (fall) semester will be a challenge as I’m doing French 105, which students have dubbed Extreme French. It’s a new course modeled on the successful Spanish 105 and is a combination of French 101 and 102; the first year of college French is covered in one semester. I also work with and mentor younger colleagues, such as Kat Tracy (English), whose field is medieval English; Steve Isaac (History), who specializes in 12th-century French history; and Wade Edwards (French). Kat and I are organizing a study abroad trip next May, The Realms of King Arthur, to Brittany (in France), Cornwall (in England), Wales and other Arthurian-related sites.”
Raymond has taught French at Harvard, the University of Virginia, Tufts and Temple universities, and Wilson College. He has taught on an adjunct or visiting basis at several other colleges, including Dartmouth, Gettysburg and Dickinson. One of his U.Va. students was George Allen, the former Virginia governor and current U.S. senator. Other former students include actress Meredith Baxter (Dartmouth), Renaissance scholar Richard Waswo (Harvard) and screenwriter Judith Roscoe (Stanford).

Raymond has published seven books, all in the area of medieval comparative literature, and more than 110 scholarly articles, about one-fourth of them in French. His academic activities have taken him on more than 30 trips to nine foreign countries, mostly to study manuscripts by the Roman poet Virgil (70 B.C.-19 B.C.), his favorite author. “These days I’m working on the second volume of a three-volume book project, which is a synthesis of my work since about 1970. Volume II is Studies in Medieval Translation Theory. Volume I, composed in French, is The Genesis of Medieval French Romance.” Even during the family vacation this summer to Folly Beach, S.C., near Charleston, he worked on the project on his laptop.

“I have found my bliss,” he said of his life’s work, a smile on his face, quoting from the famous “Follow your bliss” advice of the late professor and writer Joseph Campbell. “As I tell my students, find something that you love and do it, and you’ll be successful.”

Raymond Joseph Cormier was born 23 November 1938 in Bridgeport, Conn., and grew up there and later in the nearby town of Fairfield (his wife, also born in Bridgeport, grew up in nearby Stratford and Westport). His father was a chef of French-Canadian descent who “spoke nothing but French the first 15 years of his life,” and his mother (“the crazy Hungarian; I take after her”) ran at least a
half-dozen restaurants. His parents divorced when he was in the eighth grade. “My maternal grandmother was my caretaker on and off for as long as I can remember. She came to America on a boat from Hungary when she was 10.”

“I think I was drawn to the contemplative life of a scholar because of my family’s rather unstable and materialistic lifestyle,” said Raymond, who as a teenager wanted to “go to Detroit and design sports cars for General Motors.” He and his future wife, then Patricia Picard, met on 11 November 1953 at a football game at Fairfield Prep, the boys’ school where he was a sophomore and a cheerleader. She was a sophomore at Lauralton Hall, an all-girls Catholic school founded by the Sisters of Mercy.

“The game was originally scheduled for a Saturday but was rained out and rescheduled for the following Wednesday afternoon, which was Armistice Day. Patty came over to the game with about 20 other girls from Lauralton Hall. Later I heard that, after seeing me from the stands with my megaphone and in my white sweater and red pants, she told a friend, ‘I bet I can get a date with him.’ At a friend’s suggestion, we accompanied the girls to their bus after the game, and we paired off. Patty and I ended up walking next to each other. For the first time in my life, somebody listened to me, which is why I fell for her. When I had a birthday 12 days later, she threw me a birthday party – the first one in my life.” The only subject in high school in which Raymond did consistently well was Latin. He wasn’t interested in college and enrolled at the University of Bridgeport (UB) only because he was persuaded by his family to “try it for a year.” During his freshman year he got just C’s and one B, in English. Patty, his on-again, off-again girlfriend (“She likes to say ‘Well, I dated other people!’”), was also studying at UB.

The next year at Bridgeport, he fell in love with French, thanks to a professor who became his role model. “Professor John Rassias was so dynamic and passionate! He had a profound and lifelong influence on me. He was a huge inspiration; he became a father figure for me and the professor I wanted to become. He inculcated in me the value of higher education, the value of foreign language instruction and the value of being a college professor. We have been close ever since. In fact, I talked to him just last week.” Rassias, who developed his own special approach to teaching languages, is currently the William R. Kenan Professor at Dartmouth, where he has taught since 1965.

On 9 June 1960, only four days after graduating from Bridgeport, Raymond married Patricia Picard. A few months later they began the multi-campus, dual-career odyssey that would eventually bring them to Farmville. “We crammed about 99 percent of our belongings in the ’52 Oldsmobile we’d just bought and drove cross-country to Stanford University, which had awarded me a teaching assistantship. We stopped on the way in Kansas City and saw my dad, who was working at Mission Hills Country Club. He taught Patty how to cook in about a week – Extreme Cuisine!”

At Harvard in 1966, after earning a master’s degree at Stanford, he became hooked for life on the French Middle Ages when he was led to discover a mid-12th-century French translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic. “All of the foundations of science, literature, philosophy and the arts are there in the 12th century, including of course the values and the morals.” Another longtime interest is Celtic studies, particularly early Irish historic narratives. A course he taught at Longwood in the spring of 2002, Introduction to Medieval Celtic Literature, drew about 25 students, far more than expected. His doctorate, in fact, is in Romance Languages and Celtic Studies.

Despite his preoccupation with the Middle Ages, Raymond Cormier is a Renaissance man. At Wilson College, he was guest choreographer for the student dance group Orchesis, scoring the David Bowie/Tina Turner song Girls. He played the role of Mr. Brownlow in a production of Oliver! by the Havertown Players, near Philadelphia. He produced and hosted 13 radio shows on the origins and development of West Coast Jazz in the 1950s, West Cost Jazz – Score One, at WRTI-FM in Philadelphia. And he has finished two marathons, including the 1981 New York City Marathon.

Given his background, some may be surprised by one of his hobbies. “I’m a huge Star Wars fan,” he said before opening the closet where he keeps his Star Wars memorabilia, including books and magazines. “I’m not allowed to keep the action figures; I would if I could,” he chuckled. “I joined the Star Wars Fan Club in 1978, right after the first film came out. My favorite is The Empire Strikes Back. I see a connection between Star Wars and Virgil’s Aeneid. George Lucas is like a new Virgil; all of his films are filled with magic – so much creativity, imagination and universal appeal!”

For the past year, he has been caring for his mother, Mary, 89, who has lived in a Farmville apartment complex since her mobile home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was “ripped in half” by Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. “Thank God she was with family friends at the time. She lost about 75 percent of her belongings, but surprisingly her big-screen TV survived.”

Once his wife retires, they’ll spend most of their time in the house just outside Chapel Hill, N.C., in Carrboro, that they bought in 2000. The rest will be spent in the “little granny’s cottage” behind the home of their daughter, Madelaine, in Boynton, Fla., near West Palm Beach. “We’ll go there to escape those harsh Carolina winters! Seriously, we’ll probably be there from about Thanksgiving until February or March, or maybe a little longer if the kids build the pool they’ve talked about.” In the meantime, he enjoys being First Gent. “It’s great. I have no complaints, other than there’s not enough privacy in this house. You never know who’s going to ring that bell; sometimes people stop here and ask if it’s the clubhouse for the golf course. Or they ask if they can hold their wedding ceremony here. But there are really nice perks, nice bonuses and wonderful people at Longwood to take care of us. For example, the other day I was invited to the grand opening of Cinema 8 (a Farmville theater). It’s such a privilege to live at Longwood House; I haven’t had to repair a faucet! So, more time to follow my bliss!”

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